00s fashion: the rise of the clap back T-shirt
Fashion

From Dump Him to Stop Being Desperate: the rise of the clapback T-shirt

From Britney Spears to Lindsay Lohan and, more recently, Charli XCX – the clapback T-shirt has a long and lauded history, and now it is making its grand return to the fashion fore.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the outfit worn in said image must be shouting at the very top of its lungs.

Whether you’re an ardent fashion lover or a mere clothes-wearer, the power of style to provide a first impression is undisputed. Clothes telegraph meaning and messages in a way that requires the wearer to say nothing at all.

It’s with precisely this sort of clothes-as-power thinking that we’re able to report the best post-pandemic way to make a statement – one that the fashion set is loving – is the clapback T-shirt.

Style’s blundering comeback kid, in recent weeks the humble clapback T-shirt has reared its head from the 00s grave as a bevy of famous faces have used their tops to tell society precisely what they’re thinking.  

00s fashion: the rise of the clap back T-shirt
Charli XCX hitting back at critics with her Praying T-shirt.

In the week following the release of her most recent album, Crash, Charli XCX bit back at the acerbic-tongued critics who’d slated her work by wearing a tiny T-shirt that sent a clear message. Crafted by New York brand Praying, the blush pink top read: “They don’t make statues of critics”, which instantly set fashion’s collective tongue wagging.

Kitsch label Praying, which was founded by friends in 2020, has built up a cult following for its tongue-in-cheek sartorial irony, with Rosalía, Megan Thee Stallion and Olivia Rodrigo among its fans. Slogans included in Praying’s offering include ‘God’s Favourite’, ‘Angel By Day’ and ‘Main Character’ - a nod to the commentary gaining cadence about whether or not people possess main character energy.  

00s fashion: the rise of the clap back T-shirt
Paris Hilton made headlines in the 00s with her "Stop Being Desperate" T-shirt.

It’s no surprise that slogans are becoming a firm fashion favourite, particularly in a time of rising political ambiguity. “Slogans help us communicate our allegiance far more easily than through clothing alone,” says Carolyn Mair, behavioural psychologist and author of The Psychology Of Fashion. “Slogans let us broadcast without the effort of making a vocal statement or assuming our observers understand our message as intended.”

“Clothing is a way of expressing our self-identity,” Mair adds, “What we think our clothing says – or what we want it to say – may be very different from what others think it says, which a slogan makes very clear.” 

00s fashion: the rise of the clap back T-shirt
Victoria Beckham used her T-shirt to send a clear riposte to critics of the fact that she chooses not to smile in public.

The appetite for slogans is clear. According to global fashion platform Lyst, searches for slogan pieces have steadily risen by 37% each month since September, and also notes that slogan tank tops are among the sought-after pieces.

In 2019, fashion designer Christopher Kane launched More Joy as a “fearless and relatable counterpart” to his eponymous brand. Among the London diffusion label’s bestselling pieces are T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Sex”, “Special” and “More Joy”.

“Our More Joy customers are a younger age group that connect most with us digitally,” Kane tells Stylist. “We wanted to do something for them; something authentic that reflected our shared values of pleasure, connection and fun.” 

00s fashion: the rise of the clap back T-shirt
Julia Restoin Roitfeld wearing a More Joy T-shirt during London Fashion Week in 2018.

There’s a legion of brands following the slogan suit, too. Designer Vanna Youngstein’s T-shirts have similarly channelled a sense of digital-first, tongue-in-cheek irony. When Alexa Demie’s character Maddy wore the label’s “Don’t be jel” T-shirt during the second season of Euphoria, it swiftly sold out.

The same is true of Nii Hai, a brand also revered for its playful digital acerbity, with T-shirts among its offering reading “Blow Me” and “I Miss My Ex”, which takes the form of the European flag, a nod to the UK’s calamitous exit from the political union.

The trend was kickstarted, as many of today’s ubiquitous trends were, in the early 00s, when paparazzo and tabloid fame was at its zenith. All too aware of the ability to send a message through highly choreographed, highly performative publicity stunts, celebrities began telling the press – and therein, the public – precisely what they wanted to be said via their T-shirts.  

In 2002, Britney Spears was lauded for wearing a “Dump Him” T-shirt in the weeks following her break-up with Justin Timberlake, during which he had reportedly moved on with Alyssa Milano.

Lindsay Lohan, a fellow fixture of the early 00s tabloid culture, sported a fitted T-shirt that read “Skinny Bitch”, which was interpreted as a riposte to the headlines deeming her too thin. Madonna hit back at the press’s obsession with her Kabbalah religion by sporting a T-shirt reading “Cult Member” when leaving its LA centre in 2004, while Katy Perry used a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Nasty Woman” on it as she joined presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail in 2016.

“Slogans immediately identify us with a particular social group and dissociate us from other groups” Mair explains. “This sense of belonging gives us pride and is described in social psychology through the theory of social cohesion.” 

The power in clothes is channelled through slogans, suggests Mair, as they are virtually impossible to overanalyse. “Whatever our slogans says, it eases communication and reduces the risk of misunderstanding.”

Somewhere lining the rail of a store somewhere, we don’t doubt there’s a T-shirt for that too. 

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Images: courtesy of Getty